Sarah Hovinga

Human Health and Agriculture Aren’t So Different After All

The interesting thing for me about beginning my college education thinking I wanted to be a doctor, but actually ending up in agriculture is that at first glance it seems like a completely different direction, but in reality, they are related fields, scientifically.

If you think about the major focus of human medicine, protecting and promoting the health of people using the latest technological advances and scientific discoveries so that we can live long, prosperous lives, the differences to growing food are slim. Still not convinced? Let me explain some more. You’ve heard about who I am and also why I love a career in agriculture in my previous blogs, but let’s dive down into the nerdy bits a little more; my favorite!

The first pretty clear comparison is that in both medicine and crop production, we are caring for the health of living things, in many ways. People get sick and need medication; so do plants. Plants contract diseases just like humans do. If we don’t catch people’s infections soon enough, they have to go to the emergency room or undergo serious antibiotics. Growers also have to utilize emergency crop protection methods if they don’t have access to correct tools, which is a situation they don’t want to be in. It’s much better for everyone to use a preventative program where you are actively engaged in the health of your organism (either a crop or a human). Agricultural crops need crop protection, just like humans need preventative medicine. It’s much better to care for the small problems, before they turn into epidemics.

Another interesting topic I deal with on a daily basis in my job: plant and beneficial microbe interactions. Do you eat yogurt? Have you heard of probiotics? Maybe you are familiar with the microbiome project. Good bacteria symbiotically living within us are a large part of human health and keeping the right balance is important for crucial systems like brain function and cardiovascular fitness. Isn’t it amazing that the same sort of thing happens in plants - and in humans? In my position, I research beneficial bacteria for agricultural crop protection products and one of the things we focus on is how these good bacteria can stimulate the immune systems of plants so that the plant can build up its own immunity and fight off disease or environmental stress; straightforward if you think about it. Bacterial or chemical cues are used in agricultural spray programs that are based on this technology. Using a living being’s own natural defense system to protect itself: pretty neat that this concept is established and growing in ag.

Sarah Hovinga
Sarah Hovinga
Sarah Hovinga,
Senior Scientist, Biologics Project and Product Support, Disease Management, Bayer Division Crop Science

A well-known, but I think less medicinally-compared practice is fertilizer application. Where we humans take vitamins to improve our growth, growers use fertilizers to promote plant growth. Same concept. Essential nutrients and micronutrients are provided to us and increase the efficiency of cellular functions. In the case of humans, you probably feel better, more energetic, and in the long-term, essential vitamins are a good thing for your health. In the case of plants with good fertilizer regimens, yield and quality come out ahead, crops are more efficiently grown, and more abundant, nutritious food can be enjoyed by consumers.

Technology has also made advances in human health possible, and I think because we ourselves, relatives, or friends of ours are exposed to these breakthroughs, we are more familiar with the medicinal discoveries compared to those used in crops. Think about procedures such as heart transplants and the tools doctors use to perform feats like this. Amazing! Agriculture has made some serious technological advances too. Think of the mechanization used in harvesting. This allows for crops to be more efficiently produced, healthy and fresh produce is more affordable, and people can be doing more meaningful work other than long harvest days. Disruptive technologies such as weed elimination precision agriculture are being discussed and tested for commercial feasibility. Equipment and technology will continue to rock our medicinal and agricultural worlds for the better.

Overall, the similarities between caring for a human being and a living crop don’t differ that much in concept, but in practice, agriculture will still need to catch-up to where pharmaceuticals are now and will be in the future. The more advances we have in both fields and the collaborations built between the two industries will help to cultivate more innovation and cross fertilization for improving the protection and promotion of human and agricultural health worldwide.

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